Episode 111: The Politics of Human Sexuality
the formatting on this is gonna be fucked, i just know it. also, i feel like i rambled for too long and didn't say what i really wanted to say. we'll see how this goes.
let's get the most important thing out of the way first. here's what's on the wheel of remorse, as far as i can make out:
* one night stand
* forgot to take "pill"
* unwanted pregnancy
* mysterious rash
* now she's clingy
* OH! it burns!
* too much to drink
* can't spell syphilis
* "forgot" condoms
* didn't go to the STD fair
* oh no not AIDS!
* what's your name again?
* what's an STD?
* ??? needed a ride home
* honey, I thought she was you
* boring sex
* why, that wasn't there before
* where did you come from?
* he wrote me a poem
* ??? – one I can't make out
if there is a god, the props department at community is doing her work.
jeff and pierce have danced around each other the entire series, but in this episode, we get a pretty straight forward compare/contrast plot. we watch as pierce manipulates jeff through jeff's insecurities, forcing jeff to sink to pierce's level. pierce is depicted at first as completely shallow and crude and blatantly sexist. at one point, he actually compares his girlfriend to a fish that he wants to display on his mantle. to him, doreen is just an object to show how great he is. he has the insight that jeff is similar to him in this regard, and he uses it to trick jeff into joining him on a double date to the STD fair.
throughout their interactions on the double date, pierce tries to get jeff to compare their dates (suggesting they meet later to share eggs and details, for instance–"worst combination plate ever"). he awkwardly tries to show off his girlfriend's better qualities, but all he can see is her ability to correctly pronounce the names of wines and her physical attractiveness. jeff, to his own credit, rejects the comparison idea and sees that doreen is actually an intelligent and sophisticated person. she sees right through him and tries to give him some advice. it goes unsaid that if jeff dated doreen and pierce had a date with sabrina, everyone would likely have been much happier (for pierce and sabrina, probably only in the short term).
the episode goes out of its way to repeatedly show sabrina's superficial qualities. she objects to being called a "secretary," but misses the point on why that term might be degrading (and honestly, i think she's a little wrong that it's degrading at all. it's a word with a gendered history, but it's largely become less and less gendered as time goes on. at this point, i'm sure it still has negative connotations, but less so than "escort" or specifically gendered terms like "stewardess" or "dude".) she uses childish words like "yikers" and "tinkles." she is seduced into dating jeff through her own superficial likes and dislikes (hiphop, horses, and clean shaven faces). she clearly thinks herself deeper than she is, because jeff really wins her over with the godawful line "can you ever really own a horse?" she's symbolic of everything that jeff thinks he wants, but doesn't need. she's also one of the more offensive female stereotypes i've seen on television, but (a) we see her through jeff's eyes, more or less, and (b) her character's purpose is to make a point about the superficiality and insecurity of anyone who is immature.
it would be easy to say that because he derives his own worth through the superficial qualities of his girlfriend, pierce also views others' worth through the same. if you look at his actions through the episode, though, he uses jeff's shallowness to get him into the double date, but once on the double date, he spends it trying to impress jeff. he clearly respects jeff, and he has brought an intelligent, sophisticated woman as his date. something in him recognizes people with better qualities than what's on their surface (even if what's on their surface is also generally appealing). that said, he spends most of the episode missing these qualities. at the end, he has a brief moment with jeff during which he manages a real human moment, but he very quickly quashes that by borrowing money to hire his ex-girlfriend as an escort. pierce's views on others' value being defined by their sexual prowess, though, is oddly backed up in small places.
throughout the episode, maturity is connected to how men treat women. doreen calls jeff out and tells him that he's already too mature for someone as immature as sabrina. she indicates to him that she knows that he is ready for a mature relationship, and that idea will play out a bit later with slater and britta to some degree, and it seems to be part of his motivation for hesitating with annie. slater is jeff's first serious girlfriend, and shirley accurately perceives britta's role in motivating jeff to mature enough to actually be able to have a mature relationship. doreen is one of his earlier steps on that journey. i almost started to talk more about that journey, but it was going to turn into a review of the season one finale, so i stopped. let me move on a bit.
jeff mostly disregards doreen's advice at first, but when he becomes the victim of superficial judgment, he has a little epiphany and walks out on sabrina. he begins to come to terms with the journey to maturity. this is partly about his evolving view of women as more than sex objects, but it's also a bit about his security with himself as he is at greendale. he's uncomfortable there not because of the questionable quality of the education (he plans to coast through, anyway), the weirdness of the people (he's one of the most accepting individuals on the show), or the very real danger of dying from black mold, but because he knows that he's finally growing up. the people he has met at greendale are all part of his journey to maturity. britta is the primary catalyst in the first season, but everyone at greendale seems to have an effect on him. in other episodes, abed becomes almost like his mentor. pierce is both a source of wisdom and a clear warning. shirley is a bit of a moral compass on occasion. annie is, amongst other things, someone who drives him to be a good person and a source of temptation–the longer he refuses to give in to his baser desires and try to seduce her, the more he can prove to himself that he's got at least one good quality. troy is on something of a parallel journey, and someone jeff can mentor somewhat. being put into a position where he has to be a little bit of a role model forces him to evaluate himself.
it's also worth noting here that the show is not equating maturity with age. on the surface, they do, because those are the terms doreen and britta put it into, of course, but pierce is twice jeff's age and much more immature. it might be telling us about "growing up," but it's showing us that that's just another way to say, in this instance, that they are learning acceptance and self-respect.
what i'm trying to say here is that the more jeff lets greendale and all its weird denizens affect him, the more he becomes a real human being.
yes, i said all of that just to set up that pun.
meanwhile, annie's story in this episode is more firmly about security in one's own sexuality than it is about gender poltiics. it's still, however, about maturity. annie's inexperienced (she's caught glimpses) and a bit naive (the look on her face as britta tells her that her boyfriend was gay even back when they were together illustrates this fairly well). she tries hard to teach people about safe sex, but the truth is, she doesn't quite get it. anyone who writes fortune cookies like she does really has a bit of a disconnect with how people are motivated in regards to sex. it's actually a nice little piece of characterization for annie: if she thinks that people will be motivated by that fortune cookie, it probably means it's the sort that would motivate her. it reflects her repression in an interesting way, showing that something so blunt and rather unconvincing would trigger her anxieties in such a way that would make her think it'd work on other people.
the dean is acts as her foil, and he's oddly mixed in his insecurities. he's very open about his sexuality in some ways, but he still can't muster the gumption to actually say "penis." he'll imply that he has interacted with the model phallus with his eyes closed in a very suggestive manner, but he has to have a guidance counselor and a stenographer present for his talk with annie, shirley, and britta. and yet, he adapts remarkably quickly to saying "penis" after the counselor has everyone say it. also, he lost his doorknob somehow, so he has to lock his office with a padlock. this could be a huge metaphor about his security, but really, it's just a gag on greendale.
so annie is uncomfortable with sex and sexuality. she's naive and inexperienced. her insecurity is apparent in various ways throughout the episode, but my favorite is that she has to indicate that it's an honor to be chosen for the condom demonstration. she dives head first into the STD fair, but she has to point out to everyone her contributions. she wants validation. she can't be honest with the dean about her inexperience. she goes to britta and shirley (and sets up a wonderful bit of hypocritical humor). when it comes down to it, she stands up for herself, though. she stands up for being "repressed" (which i think is more accurately described as "modest"). and then, as she's leaving, she derides the penis in general, thereby taking aways its negative power without actually ever saying the word. annie is a bad ass.
and yet, through the whole thing, her t-shirt and her backpack straps accentuate her chest in evident fan service to horny straightwads, bisexuals, lesbians, and pansexual imps everywhere. the writers of the show aren't naive, alison brie isn't insecure about her body, and we're all fucking pigs.
meanwhile, troy and abed are in a contest wherein troy is trying to prove that he's a better athlete than abed. abed is going along with it because he wants troy to be friends with him, and ultimately, he lets troy win to give troy the victory he needs. troy, meanwhile, realizes abed's a better athlete, and when it seems like it matters, he admits it. i say "seems like" because there is no way the difference in the times troy or abed would not matter at all in stopping people from using the condoms or not (and ultimately, abed sends the wrong message anyway). it's very silly, but it's a nice little story about troy's insecurities, and a nice bit of characterizations showing abed's security. shirley and britta are mostly present as foils for annie and jeff. shirley defends doreen, in a way, and subtly calls jeff out on his shallowness when she tells him not to make light of an escort just because he can't get a date. britta is a contrast to sabrina in the first scene, offering snide comments on sabrina's shallow take on feminism and the dean's idiotic response to the women's bathrooms. (if there is a better indictment of the knee-jerk tendencies of bureacracies and establishments to absolutely any percieved complaint than the dean, then i want jim rash involved in it).
britta's best moment is when she gets a hold of jeff's phone. she calls him out on how none of the women in it have names. jeff's phone is merely a collection of one night stands described in the most superficial terms. jeff is still refusing to accept this as a flaw at this point–he reacts with sarcasm to her derision. britta compares him to a twenty year old, and he's still happy in that role. when jeff finally does start to accept the journey to maturity, his first real action on that journey is to give britta a name in his phone. it's a small action, but it's delivered in a manner that's rather touching. at least he sees britta as a person now and not a goal or piece of flesh.
meanwhile, britta and shirley are symbols of two different forms of sexual experience (and not in the way illustrated by their reactions to the size of the model phallus). shirley is a good christian woman, but a married one. britta once traded something sexual for a gym sock full of nickels. they both show support for annie regardless. they're comfortable with themselves in this regard, at least, enough to laugh at the model and enjoy themselves. their reactions (and the counselor's) to annie's speech are also mostly positive, and this is something that the show can be commended on. all of the variants on sexuality represented are treated kindly, even the dean's over-the-top appreciation for the model isn't commented on. it's a punchline, sure, but annie's terror is in response to the prospect of the demonstration, and not the dean's surprisingly forthright discussion on how lifelike the fake cock is.
that's really a large part of what i love about community. it's funny. it can be outright mean sometimes. it's got a sort of pop cultural intelligence that pulls me in. but like almost all of the best comedies ever, it has a big heart. i've harped on this before, of course, but in this episode, that heart manifests in an exploration of security and acceptance. it handles it without getting preachy, and by not taking the most obvious route. they don't make annie's modesty any better or worse than britta's free spirit. pierce is a chauvinist, but he understands that he needs to be better–and who knows, maybe that extra twenty bucks he wanted from jeff was actually for a bit of conversation. jeff and troy are fighting growing up, but like everyone, they're coming to terms with it.
stray observations (ohmygawdican'tbelieveigottodothat):
- "juror number six. that sounds above board."
- "don't eat the crab dip, yay yay!" (shirley's face in the reaction shot is probably even better than troy's brilliant delivery)
- "at least you have 'mommy' in here." "that's not my mom."
- "is that considered big?" simultaneously: "yes." "no."
- "what my dad called a 'jimmy carter.'" (shameless boasting: i've met jimmy carter twice, and he wasn't a dick either time.)
- "harvey keitel's?"
- "his eyes are too gentle and mysterious."
- "but trust me, eyes closed, you can't tell the difference."
- while discussing the model dork, the dean is drinking a juice box.
- "what in the reverse porky's is going on here?"
- "597? there's a dog fighting ring in my office?!"
- "he liked s&m and merlot. he called it s&m&m."
- "he cried after. and during. he's gay now." "he was gay then."
- "i have to show the dean that he can trust me. we have to break into his office." "i actually have no problem with that." "i can do that."
- "say cavernet savignon for jeff."
- "sounds like fun." "no, it doesn't. and it won't be."
- much love for the arm wrestling over the top homage, especially the joke with the song coming on at just the right moment.
- britta scowls when jeff calls her his "casual friend."
- i hate it when they use the abbreviated theme song.
- the story about annie and her gay boyfriend is based on something that really happened to alison brie. i feel like that's old news, but it's worth noting in case some of you human beings missed it.
- they mention that jim rash had written "the next alexander payne movie," which is, of course, the descendents that is so well loved right now.
- they note that the security guard was randomly promoted in a later episode to a full fledged cop. they also note that the actor, craig krakowski (sp?) is the brother of liz krakowski, who was a writer for the show in the first season and the woman who played the guidance counselor in this episode.
- harmon talks about how he didn't let the writers move any story off campus in the first season, so that when it happened in the second season, it would make it feel like the show and its setting were growing. that's why there were so many dances at greendale.
- donald glover gave out the greendale condoms to his friends as souvenirs, but told them not to use them. life imitates art!
- dan harmon talks about how chevy chase very much wanted to do the show, and that was strange for chase. he notes that this was important for the character, though.
- something i didn't notice the first time through: the tags in the first season tell the story of troy and abed's growing friendship. that's why they're involved in so many of them, along with the fact that fans complained when they weren't (that's mentioned in another commentary). i bet there's a compilation video of all the tags in order somewhere, but a quick youtube search gives me nothing.
- harmon sings the theme song at table reads. that's adorable. donald glover claims the theme song is about a lynching. i think the theme song is about growing up.
- harmon talks about how he realized after episode six that jeff and annie would be a thing, and that he realized it would come up during the first episode. he talks about how one of the things he wants to explore in the show is the idea of this group and how any of them can end up hooking up with the others.
- there's a brief discussion about the "racism does not compute" poster that basically boils down to how the poster is ironic. also, the cast loves it.
- harmon compares annie to mary ann from gilligan's island. i suppose that makes britta ginger, shirley mrs. howell, pierce mr. howell, troy gilligan, abed the skipper, and jeff the professor (although those last two or three switch up on occasion).
- i never thought about it until they mention it in the commentary, but troy and abed's slow motion after the arm wrestling contest is just them moving in slow motion and not a special effect at all. if you look behind them, everyone else is basically moving regularly.
- harmon makes jokes about who tried out for roles, but the way he mentions that george takei tried for the dean's role didn't seem like a joke. i wonder if it was true. if so, that'd be an interesting spin on the dean.
- harmon compares pierce to cartman. i haven't seen enough south park to comment on that (well, i might have, a long time ago), but so far pierce hasn't ground anyone's parents up and cooked them into chili. nor does he involve shitty, pretentious rock bands like radiohead in the show he's in, so he has a leg up in my book. (you heard me. wanna fight?)
On the A.V. Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/regional-holiday-music,66270/#comment-414056147 (page 63)